Contributed by Christina Morin.
On my way to a conference last month, I found myself with a bit too much time in the airport and nothing better to do than wander about Duty Free and find myself something to read on the flight. Accordingly, I popped into the nearest Hughes and Hughes for a bit of a browse, overpriced latte in hand. I was looking for something light to read – not as light as the gossipy rags stocking the magazine rails (though I have been known to buy those from time to time, all the while insisting that I never usually read them!) but certainly nothing as heavy as the research monographs I’d packed in my bag, just in case. As it happened, I was in luck; after passing by the latest Martina Cole and Cecilia Ahern offerings, I lighted upon what I thought was a perfect medium between the two extremes of light and heavy reading: John Mulcahy’s 2009 novel Union. I had read briefly of the book’s publication earlier and was delighted to see a fictional attempt to deal with the Anglo-Irish Union (1801) – an absolutely central event in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Irish social, political, and cultural history which, oddly, has very rarely provided the background for popular, historical fiction. Credit is certainly due to Mulcahy for attempting to recover, in an entertaining but educational manner, this important event to a general reading audience.
Published within the last few months, Union has an impressive list of politicians, historians, and writers gracing its back cover with exuberant words of praise. Patrick Geoghegan, for instance, is credited with hailing the novel as ‘[a]n unconventional love story [… that] captures brilliantly the chaos and intensity of the 1798 Rebellion, the passing of the Act of Union, and the doomed heroism of Robert Emmet’. Mulcahy’s novel, as you’ll deduce from Geoghegan’s comments, is concerned with more than just the immediate period surrounding Anglo-Irish Union. Instead, it attempts to capture the decade or so leading up to and following Union, gesturing towards the political and emotional fervour that surrounded all three events that Geoghegan mentions.
I suppose I should’ve been clued in to Mulcahy’s rather more far-reaching intent than his title suggests when I saw the novel’s cover- a reproduction of Francis Wheatley’s The Dublin Volunteers on College Green, 4 November 1779. Covering 1798, Union, and Emmet’s uprising may not seem like a major undertaking, encompassing as they do less than ten years of actually history, but these are all such major events in Irish history that I found myself frequently wishing that Mulcahy had confined himself just to Union, as his title promises he had. Understandably, to fully explain Union, Mulcahy would have necessarily had to dip into 1798 and 1803, but his attempt to describe all three events falls victim to its expansiveness, especially when Mulcahy also throws in a secondary narrative concerned with the slave trade in Jamaica. Ostensibly, his decision to do so rests on a comparison between the situations in Ireland and Jamaica, but this point is lost in the over-reaching jumble of the narrative. The novel may adhere loosely to Aristotelian unities of time and setting, but somehow it still strikes this reader as attempting too much. More than that, although Mulcahy obviously and admirably seems to be channelling writers of this period, including Maria Edgeworth, his narrative sometimes suffers as a result from a predictability that makes it a hard slog to continue reading.
As an ambitious novel that introduces a very important period of Irish history to a wide reading audience in an accessible way, Union certainly succeeds. But as an entertaining piece of fiction that also reaches for a compelling and historically accurate account of such pivotal historical events, it falls rather flat.
Christina Morin is a monthly contributor to Pue’s, writing recommendations of eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century fiction and drama that may be of interest to eighteenth-century Irish historians and history buffs.